It could be over who gets to play in the field that day or who should be occupying the alleys to intimidate passersby. It could be because the harassment of a girl was protested. Or because a 'proposal' was rejected. It could be just about anything that can trigger brutality in a youngster.
According to news reports, there is a rise in criminal behaviour among teenagers and young adults. The latest report cites 15-year-old Hridoy from Barisal being hacked to death by a group of teenagers. Two of his friends were also attacked though they survived. Only a few weeks ago, we read a chilling story of how gang fights between two rival groups ended in the murder of a Class nine student Adnan Kabir. The fight was over 'supremacy over an area in Uttara and the 'gangs' comprised of teenaged school boys from middle class families.
Killing is not the only crime young boys are committing. A report in Prothom Alo published on Saturday paints a grim picture of our youth. According to reports from two government-run juvenile crime centres sent to the Social Welfare Ministry last December, there were 120 youngsters who were accused of murders while 142 of them had been charged under the Women and Children Repression Act. Many of the teenagers charged under this Act have been accused of rape.
The idea that a large number of our youth are engaged in violent crimes may shock and terrify adults but it gives an idea of how our society has failed those members we consider to be our demographic dividend. Teenage boys are now part of gangs, their activities concentrating on getting the upper hand over another gang. The concepts of 'supremacy' and 'respect' are an important element in this gang culture that advocates brutality and defiance of law.
The Prothom Alo investigation has found that youngsters, predominantly boys, who commit crime, come from all backgrounds. They are from slums, from middle class families and from wealthy backgrounds too. It is the last two categories that are the most baffling. Poverty and crime often go together – hardly a surprise and something that every society that has such glaring inequality as ours is familiar with. But when school going kids who do not have to worry about their basic needs and often enjoy considerable luxury, resort to violent crimes, there has to be something grossly wrong with the environment they are growing up in.
An obscene rise in consumerism with people being valued for what new gadget, car or how many pieces of property they own, has seeped into the psyche of the youth making them competitive in the worst possible sense. It's no longer about who got the highest grade in a math exam but more about who managed to buy the latest model motorcycle (or car) to show off among peers.
But where is all this coming from, we are forced to ask ourselves. Who are these teenagers emulating? What kind of examples are the 'Boro Bhais' (Big Brothers) setting? Almost every day there is news of murders or some other brutal crime (such as rape) being committed by young men from the political elite. More often than not these individuals get away with murder, literally, because they have their own 'Boro Bhais' in the right places and the right amount of cash to buy silence from victims' families. The message that permeates through society is that no crime is punishable if you can pull the right strings. Not only that, the idea that it is okay to bully people, disrespect elders, even the headmaster of a school, to harass girls or even rape them, has been transmitted from delinquent adults to the youth. There are no heroes to worship only daredevil delinquents who defy the law and all rules of decency in their bid to consolidate their undeserved power.
Parents, meanwhile, are bewildered by their sons' actions with little realisation of their own contribution to the destruction of their child's morals. Many parents give their kids inordinate amounts of cash, gadgets and cars in lieu of their time, guidance and affection. Others think religious education is the only way to keep them on track, forgetting the dangers of distorted notions of religion that have given rise to militancy. Still others allow their children to stay hours on the internet, not knowing what kind of content they are exposed to. Pornography, brutality, propaganda and lies are the unsavoury sides of the World Wide Web that most teenagers and young children are confronted by, with no proper knowledge as to how to process the information.
It is clear that we adults have little clue about how to handle this phenomenon of children turning to crime. But what we do know is that children are impressionable individuals and they need to be guided at every stage of their growing up and even beyond that. Children, moreover, tend to consciously or unconsciously follow what their elders do. If a child sees his father increasing his bank balance by accepting bribes or cheating those who are less weak, if he sees his 'older' brother getting involved in criminal activities, getting away with it and even showing off about it, if he sees his parents evaluating others based on their material wealth or social status instead of how good they are as human beings, if he sees his father beating his mother with no one protesting, if he sees his sister being treated with disrespect in his family, this will set the tone of his own behaviour in the wider society. And when he will see that those who commit crimes being revered for their machismo and ability to circumvent the law through their connections and wads of cash, it will be all the more attractive for him to follow suit.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.